Recently at dmexco 2017, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg called digital community building and engagement must-focus activities for brands. But you don’t need to look to Silicon Valley for some of the best examples of social media community-building – indeed, look no further than the Premier League.
Brands take note
If there is one sub-culture that social media seems tailor-made for it is club football and its horde of fans.
Football fans have always been among the most tightly-knit but far-flung communities in our society. That is why social media has eased itself so effortlessly into the culture. And boy, how the clubs have leaned into it. They continue to demonstrate a social media savviness any Fortune 500 company would do well to copy.
Granted, the top clubs are rocking fan numbers corporations can only dream about.
Manchester United has 14.4m followers on Twitter and 19.1m on Instagram. Chelsea F.C. has 10.1m on both networks. Manchester City is trailing with 4.91m on Twitter and 5.3m on Instagram.
Even with the luxury of a long-established and exclusive audience, you just don’t get those kind of numbers without some dedicated engagement efforts.
So, as we start Matchweek 6 of the Premier League, let’s see how its clubs already have social media community building locked down.
Building 1:1 connections
Man Utd are well-known for their digital know-how. The team’s massive 659m fan base is in no small part due to the use of digital channels to connect with and cultivate fans around the world.
Case-in-point: on the same day they launched their @ManUtd Twitter profile in 2013, they also launched a profile on Weibo, the ‘Chinese Twitter’. The upshot being they are now China’s most followed football team.
Man Utd are hardly alone in this. All the clubs are embracing the latest social media channels and trends to make fans active members of feelgood communities.
Liverpool FC were an early innovator here with their 2015 ‘Get closer to Klopp’ campaign using video and the #KloppLFC hashtag. Fans had a then unique chance to connect with their team’s manager.
The big payoff here is authenticity: just as fans want to engage with the clubs they love, consumers are willing to engage with (and buy from) the brands they like. Social media has given clubs and brands alike the ability to connect with people where they live.
Why pour effort and spend into something your fans will eagerly dish up for free?
All the clubs encourage fans to share images and personal moments. It is a trend reflected in how quickly Instagram caught up with and surpassed Twitter as fan community network number one.
Man Utd cultivate a hoard of USG on Instagram with the hashtag #RedArmy. Meanwhile Man City are encouraging fans to use Snapchat filters on Twitter.
Love City? Love @Snapchat?
Now you can show it even more with our special Snapchat Lens!January 20, 2017
Then there are the less off-the-cuff efforts, like these Liverpool FC #TheGreatReds examples:
Thanks to all those who entered #TheGreatReds competition.February 13, 2017
For ordinary marketers – even more so than these clubs – UGC is an invaluable source of data. Every submission is a potential new profile to add to your social advertising audience.
You saw it here first
Everyone enjoys a feeling of insider exclusivity.
The clubs exploit this by giving their fans sneak peeks into behind-the-scenes situations and you ‘saw it here first’ announcements and updates
Man Utd can go behind the scenes with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Arsenal F.C. struck on a novel way to reveal their newest player (and the most expensive transfer signing ever), Alexander Lacazette.
A 30-second Twitter video showed him from the neck down with the tagline ‘You’ll never guess who…’
You’ll never guess who… pic.twitter.com/4Owx2Bg17i— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) July 5, 2017
This kind of engagement has hit an all new high and currency with the explosive rise of live-streaming.
Live video is arguably this year’s hottest social media trend. It creates a real-time sense of connection and urgency that no other channel can match. And no other format is better for creating a genuine sense of authenticity.
Again, football culture was always poised to adopt this development – blokes hunkered over mini-radios and TVs to catch the game while at weddings or other events seemed to be a standard sitcom trope when I was a kid.
And now fans can do that with their phones! Not only can they be there on the sideline, they can also get into the locker rooms and team buses. *Joy*.
In January, Man City even gave its fans a ‘day in the life’ first-person view from the perspective of club star Yaya Toure’s Snapchat Spectacles.
Now, Premier League and sports in general may seem to have an insurmountable advantage here. No other space has such a comparable stream of good-to-go content and fans willing to lap it up without question. But the clubs are still primarily using it for the same type of activities that many other brands can do as well: events, product [in their case new player] launches and simple Q&As.
Social media has levelled the field
The advent of social media has been a broadside to advertising agencies. Brands can build awareness and cultivate communities with a fraction of the budget than was previously needed.
On Instagram and Snapchat, a handheld phone camera is often enough. Nothing oozes that coveted authenticity as much as live video in all its unpolished and unrehearsed glory. This won’t be true for every kind of brand community, but it is a perfect match for football.
The Premier League clubs certainly know their audience. It is just one area where they set a shining example. That, paired with a willingness to experiment with digital technology, has enabled them to grow fan loyalty and involvement to an unprecedented level.
Companies will never be able to command the fanatical following of the big names in football. But they can certainly take a lesson from them in how to cultivate a sense of community.